Sunday, September 25, 2011

Writing: 'Had Been' versus 'Was.'

c2011 (S)

Susan awoke to the call of the birds outside her window. Swinging her feet to the floor, she went to the window. Throwing the curtains aside, she drew in a big breath of fresh morning air.

The day before, she had been at the Farmer's Market, where she had been looking for tomatoes. She had been squeezing the tomatoes. She had been idly looking around, for the concourse of people had been fascinating. She had been struck by John, by how tall and handsome he had been, and she had been thinking about him ever since...


Okay, the above is what we might call 'standard operating procedure' for a book published by a major company, in English, in the western marketplace.

In that sense, many would say that's how it should be done. (Or how it should have been done.)

Yet it irks me in some ways. In a modern motorcar, there are no nuts, bolts and fasteners visible on the exterior of a car. The only exceptions are on the bottom of the car, and maybe some wheel nuts, or on the wiper blade attachments.

So let's look at an 'experimental' way of writing the same thing.


Susan awoke to the call of the birds outside her window. Swinging her legs to the side, she went to the window. Throwing the curtains aside, she drew in a big breath of fresh morning air.

The day before, she had been at the Farmer's Market, looking for tomatoes. She was squeezing the tomatoes and idly looking around, for the concourse of people was always fascinating. She was struck by John, by how tall and handsome he was, and she had thought about him ever since...

Clearly, 'had been' is a useful tool, it sets the action on a previous day. Yet the repetitive use of it is kind of like letting nuts and bolts stick out of the side of a modern car. It is simply unnecessary, and represents a kind of 'author intrusion.' It borders on carelessness. I say that because it bugs me when I see it.

As an award-winning author said recently, 'the story has to shine through the writing.' And if the writing gets in the way, for whatever reason, then clearly the author has failed.

In my opinion, the average reader, (although maybe not a professional editor with a big publisher and thirty years of experience, and habit-forming experience at that,) will be able to follow the story and follow the meanings and nuances, assuming the writer has any craft at all.

To write for editors is to write for a very small audience, and they don't have to pay for books anyway. They see more than enough of them as it is.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Experimental Writing Technique.

c2011 (S)

What's unique about the book I am working on is that it has gotten up to 46,000 words and I have no chapters or chapter titles.

There are scene breaks. My preference is for three asterisks, where many use three number signs. But this is a new thing for me. I'm sure someone has tried it before and I don't claim to have invented it. Normally I would jot down a quick title, and then write on that subject or scene until I ran out of steam, then jot another chapter title, and write on that until I ran out...and so on and so forth.

It gives me a start, if nothing else. Another thing missing from the book is the 'gag,' which I have mentioned before. That would be some twist, some different way of looking at things. For example, a publisher had in their guidelines, 'no talking animals, please,' and so of course I had to go and do it--and shape-shifters are a nice allegorical tool. You can use them ever so many ways.

Another thing that is different about this project is that I haven't actually read it.

That sounds very odd, I'm sure. But when starting out a story, it's pretty easy to get up in the morning the next day and read the first five, ten, or twenty pages. For me, when the thing gets up to about forty pages, (double spaced, even,) I tend not to read the whole thing before starting afresh. It's just too much to read, and I don't want to forget or lose any of the ideas I had in mind. So generally, I would read the last five pages, or maybe the chapter, or the last two scenes I wrote the day before.

Now that 'Maintenon Gets a Vacation' is up to 46,000 words, I can crack it open at any point and recognize what's there, and remember why I put it there. But the whole thing is not a sort of coherent, linear whole that usually happens when we begin to visualize a tale from beginning to end in all of its complexity. While I hate like hell to print anything out these days, I really should bite the bullet and read the thing from beginning to end. The other day I sat at a park for two hours, just looking at a pond. It wouldn't be too hard to bring a file-folder with ten or twenty pages along.

With other projects, some of which took years to bring to fruition, I did read them. I read them fifty, a hundred times, maybe more by the time they were edited and published.

The other thing is to try and visualize the plot better, especially insofar as the ending is concerned. There is no deadline here. But, if I'm going to publish it myself, then I'd like to have it out in time for Christmas. If I'm going to submit to a major publisher, then the sooner it's done the better, because those guys have a long turnaround time on submissions and rejection slips.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Progress Report: Seventh Novel.

c2011 (S)

My current project is a detective fiction novel set in 1927, where Inspector Gilles Maintenon is on a walking tour of Dartmoor and stumbles on a mystery.

So far I am up to 41,000 words. At about 32,000 words, I kind of stalled out; but the thing is going better now and I have stuff written today, and ideas for tomorrow's writing, which is important and reassuring.

Detective fiction follows a certain formula, because the readers have certain expectations. In a suspense novel, you often know who the bad guys are--the attraction of the tale is the challenges set to the protagonist, and how it is laid out. But in a mystery, the resolution has to be believable, and the readers of the mystery genre expect that if they look back on the book, they will see that all the clues were in fact provided to them. It's a question of seeing the significance. Sometimes you read something, and a little light goes off in your head, and you know a character or fact will be significant later in the story--you just don't know how or why yet.

When I wrote my first novel, a WW I parody, it was in reaction to the way history, especially WW I history, is presented to Canadian audiences or readers by Canadian writers, producers and networks.

In some ways, almost every book or story I have ever written was written to present a thesis, or a premise, or as a reaction, often a gut-level reaction, to something that I either didn't like, or thought was overdone, or too often presented over-simplistically, or in the case of Canadian WW I history, just plain mealy-mouthed Imperialistic bullshit.

My third book was a parody of a space opera, and the basic premise was to put some believable science into the book, although most academics will dispute the possibility of faster-than-light space travel.

The work I am doing now sets out with no thesis, no great social theories, no premise, other than the fact that I think I can actually write a good detective story with a certain tone, a certain feel and some really professional writing.

The thing has to hang together, and it has to make sense, and the characters have to act, sound and feel like people would in a certain situaiton, in southwestern England, in 1927.

So far I have been working on it for about four months, yet my first novel took two and half years to complete a first draft. The next three books took maybe three months to smash out a manuscript, rough as they were at first glance.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Excerpt. 'Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery.'

SF-67 pic by Louis.

c2011 (S)

This is an excerpt from my WIP, provisionally entitled, 'Maintenon Gets a Vacation.' Anything in it is subject to change, review and revision.

There was a constant stream of crickets, the chittering of what might have been other crickets, another species perhaps; or maybe some kind of miniature frogs or toads. On the breeze was the occasional cry of a bird, a thin, high piping sound. Yet he could not put a name to the most familiar bird-sounds. Avery marveled at the soft brush of the wind about his upper face. In the city, it was always an annoyance, the ill winds of the City bringing nothing good with it.

But out here it was different. It cleansed a man’s soul, a soul grown sadder if not any the wiser with all the years of police work. Dawson hadn’t been out of the City in years, and yet once he accepted the fact of living rough for a few days, he was quite enjoying the novelty of the experience.

He was more aware of himself, as an animal, an organism, and that somehow his body fit in here better than his mind did. The wind again drummed at his temples. The sound fit perfectly in with this time and place, irrational, random and in harmony with his empty thoughts.

The low, wet, grey cumulus cast a pall of gloomy indifference upon the land as he sat on a public bench, incongruous on some level of human logic, as this was literally the middle of nowhere…there were signs of use, though. A cigar butt, a wrapper from a packet of crisps, if he looked around some he might find a used condom. At the exact psychological and physical distance, he might find where a pint bottle had been tossed by those less open to their inner selves. He sat high on a hill, alone with his thoughts and loving it in some way. Dawson had found peace, and felt no guilt at not sharing it with another.

The vast open vista could be deceiving. Civilization, and with it barbarity, lay
just over the nearest hilltop, most likely. He didn’t have to strain his ears as the reality of lorries, a distant train...very distant. Thare was he sound of men working cheerfully somewhere nearby but out of sight. And the crickets. The crickets had been going strong since spring, and they wouldn’t let up for a moment except for the frozen hell of a long winter on the high moors. After the chill of the evening before, it felt quite warm to Dawson. He had no real sense of hurry. He wasn’t suffering, not in the way that Maintenon had let on about. Admittedly, he was a little younger than Gilles, and wasn’t injured or anything like that. He considered that thought. The isolation was a bit sobering in the sense of objective thinking—what if there was an emergency? He would be very much on his own, just as anyone would be out here.

People had fallen, the occasional person drowned, and someone went missing around here a few years back. It really was a kind of wilderness, compared to ahome, and the fact that you could see nothing for long distances meant nothing in terms of safety. Dawson had never been with the Boy Scouts or anything, but had sufficient confidence in his abilities not to be too worried. In truth, simply being alone for the first time in years, even decades, was hard enough on the psyche. It freed up an awful lot of time for introspection.

It wasn’t always comfortable, he reckoned, but his own self-discovery hadn’t been too bad. Others might have a different experience. There was some personal revelation here, which he really hadn’t expected.

He was a mile, maybe, or it could be five miles from anyone, anyone at all. No one cared, least of all him. The hills didn’t give the impression of much height. That was only until you tried to walk up one and discovered it was real work, and then sat upon one, and discovered that it gave quite a long view around the countryside.

Upon the crags, trudging along the paths of the moorlands, that curious combination of barren prairies and lush glens, each with a seeming life, a logic all its own, had done Avery Dawson a world of good so far. It was a powerful place, a peaceful place, a place with no purpose and perfect enough for all of that. The encroaching noisiness, and busy-ness was all too clear and all too imminent. The air at least was wet, and warm, and clean. The smell of cedars would remain with him a long time. He felt that instinctively. To stand among a small copse of trees, with the sighing of the wind overhead, was to experience the most profound solitude. The smell of cedar would provoke and prolong the memory of these few days and nights of perfect freedom. The notion that there was work to be done, and a killer afoot, was a kind of icing on the cake. He was getting paid to do this.

Dawson finished his pipe and rose with a sense of anticipation. Dark was coming, and he hoped to get to the Manor either tonight or tomorrow at dawn. He didn’t have much to put on his resume, he thought with a grim smile, setting off into the valley once more. Giving his whiskers a rub, he understood that he smelled perfectly in character, and didn't give a damn who knew it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pros and Cons. Submitting Short Stories

c2011 (S)

Back in November 2010, a gentleman sent me an e-mail in which he accepted one of my stories, and told me, 'You will be warned when it is published.' This is a foriegn market, and it is not unheard of for language-based misunderstandings to arise. English is not his first language. Did he mean to reject the story?

That story has never appeared. I queried him about a year ago, and there was no response. I have no idea if that story will ever appear, and at some point I guess I might be justified in submitting it off somewhere else.

I have two or three stories like that, where I have an e-mail on file saying the thing is accepted, and it has never appeared. The trouble with my absolutely killer story, 'The Game,' is that I have an e-mail saying the story is accepted. It will appear on a website that publishes it in Spanish and English. If I try to sell that story in English, and all of a sudden it comes out on the other guy's website, any editor that buys it is going to have a problem with that, unless all rights revert immediately upon publication.

When you get to a certain length of story, a lot of magazines won't publish it. It's too long, and sort of inevitably, the thing gets submitted where it fits, and not necessarily where it would get the biggest payment per word.

This year I have made about fifty-four short story submissions so far, and I might have stuck five or six stories, only one of which actually paid anything. Even so, each publication brings new readers, and I do sell a few e-books along the way.

The key thing is to keep the new and old material flowing, although lately the enthusiam seems to have dried up a bit. The fact that I am again in transition between addresses might have something to do with it.